FOR AN OUTSIDER a Lipsett lesson, with all of its starts and brusque stops, can be an exercise in frustration. The violinist rarely develops any momentum as the music is fed, bar by bar, through the lens of Lipsett’s critical scrutiny.
After almost 35 years of teaching, Lipsett concedes, he finds it difficult to listen to a violin concerto the way most listeners do. He tends to lose the relaxed perspective of the concert-goer – and sometimes it galls him.
“I’ve trained myself to have such a professionally critical ear,” he says, “that I find that I don’t like the music in the same way as maybe I used to.”
But then, sometimes, something magical can happen. “If the music just grabs me and takes me somewhere, then I know in my mind something really good has happened,” he says. “It gets me out of that [critical] mode.”
Here’s Jennie Choi, a member of Lip-sett’s USC master class and the current concert master of the USC Symphony, in the crucible of her teacher’s office in Ramo Hall. Under Lipsett’s microscopic examination, she’s working on the first movement of the Brahms Concerto in D Major, for a competition in San Diego.
The concerto is one of the blockbusters of the violin virtuoso repertoire, a toweringly triumphal piece that, when played in a passionate, full-tilt performance, can seem to knock the roof off of the concert hall. Lipsett won’t even speculate how many times he has prepared young violinists to play the piece. “Scores,” he says.
Choi is a fiery performer with an open, readable face; she appears to feel the music viscerally. When she stops playing and lowers the violin, she displays the violinist’s telltale bruise on the side of her jaw, from spending six or seven hours a day with her instrument tucked under her chin.
With pianist John Blacklow playing the symphonic accompaniment, she leaps lustily into the stirring concerto, only to be brought up short by Lipsett. “Try to keep your vibrato going from note to note,” he says.
Once again she starts; once again he stops her. “It’s kind of draggy in here...”
When she finally gets going on the piece, Choi leans into the music, compressing her lips, stepping into a note that resolves some interior conundrum, scrinching her face from the intensity of the sound coming out of her violin. But today, the depth of feeling is eroding the clarity of her playing, Lipsett suggests. Gremlins are at work.
“I love the temperament,” Lipsett sums up. “But not at the expense of losing notes or of false accents.”
A few days later, in San Diego, Choi wins the competition.

LIPSETT ONCE HAD ambitions of his own to be a solo violinist. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, his father, the vice president of a shoe company. The family was musical, he says, gathering around a piano sometimes to sing the Irish songs that Lipsett’s grandfather had brought across the sea. “But there was nothing particularly classical,” Lipsett says. “ ‘Danny Boy,’ that sort of thing.”
As a 7-year-old, he saw someone playing a violin on television, and he was fascinated. He asked for a violin of his own.
After a year or so of lessons, he was hooked. “I knew by the time I was 8 or 9 that this was what I wanted to do,” he says. By then, the family lived in Dallas, and Lipsett’s first teacher was a former concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Zelman Brunoff.
When the family moved to St. Louis, Lipsett continued his studies with Melvin Ritter, another former concertmaster, who guided him toward a full scholarship at the Cleveland Institute of Music. After graduation, he traveled to New York to study with Ivan Galamian, DeLay’s predecessor at Juilliard and one of the most widely respected violin teachers in the world.
Galamian had a great influence on Lipsett not only as a violinist but as a teacher, particularly in the kind of grinding tenacity that Lipsett now uses on his USC students. “Galamian was determined that I was going to use more bow, and as he was teaching he’d say, ‘More bow.’ If he said it once he said it a thousand times. ‘This phrase needs to be such and such, and use more bow.’ ‘Let’s go to the next page, and use more bow.’ I don’t know any other teacher who would stay on something like that and not forget about it. He’d work on it until it was corrected.”
By his mid-20s, Lipsett began revising his dream to be a soloist. “One eventually has to face a sort of reality,” he says. “Being a top concert violinist is like running for President. There’s just not much room up there at all.”
But he discovered that teaching brilliant young talent, preparing young violinists for the concert stage, was another way of satisfying the dream. And by then he had moved to Los Angeles, where he could satisfy his need to perform with jobs playing for performances of the Bolshoi Ballet or the New York City Opera, or working as a studio musician on movie and television soundtracks. For three years, he also became a member of the Los Angeles-based Dvo&Mac255;rák String Quartet.
Most important, California offered ample supplies of the talent that Lipsett wanted to shape. He began teaching at USC in 1986 and became a tenured professor in 1990.

THE FIRST THING THAT Lipsett wants to see in a prospective new student is hands. And fingers. Long fingers? Not necessarily, he says. “I have long fingers, so I can stretch,” he says. “It’s easy for me. But somebody with smaller hands might have a much easier time up there [in the higher ranges], maybe a harder time stretching.”
More than long fingers, Lipsett is looking for flexibility and strength – “not a weight-lifter’s kind of strength, but strength in relaxation.”
And nimbleness. The violin repertoire is full of electrifying trills and rapid cascades of 32nd notes. “Everybody has a God-given maximum speed [in the fingers],” he says. “Some people’s hands just don’t move very fast, and all the practicing in the world is never going to change that. Other people have fingers that move like lightning – and like lightning, they never strike in the same place twice.”
Beyond the hands, and that good ear, he wants musicality – the instinctive understanding of a piece of music. And the confidence to face a large, discriminating audience.
Between his USC students and his private students, Lipsett teaches as many as 50 at a time, often with the help of several assistants. Studying the violin is a huge commitment of both time and money. In today’s market, Lipsett says, the “rock bottom” price on a professional quality violin is between $30,000 and $40,000, with another $3,000 to $5,000 for a bow.
Time can be costly too, he says. “For an 8- or 9-year-old to practice four hours a day, he has to be pretty serious,” he says.
And serious they are, the young prodigies – so much so that their seriousness has to be given special care. “It’s like thoroughbred horses,” Lipsett says. “Give them all the room they want and they could run until they drop dead. Same with these children. You have to rein them in.”
Today’s violinists don’t have the versatility of the great 19th-century geniuses like Paganini and Vieuxtemps, who often played their own music, Lipsett says. “Nowadays, it would seem strange if somebody like Perlman played his own music,” he says.
But there are divine moments when everything works for Lipsett. The nimble fingers and the instinctive musicality come together in moments of genius. “Sometimes the leaps that happen, they can take your breath away,” he says. “I can tell you, there is something called genius, and I’ve seen it.”
Lipsett is helping one of his USC students, Elizabeth Pitcairn, prepare for the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. She stands on the stage of an empty recital hall in the music faculty building, and Lipsett sits in the fourth row, stolidly immovable, like a catcher behind the plate.
She’s working on solo violin pieces by Bach and Paganini, without accompaniment. It’s one of the hardest things for a violinist to do, Lipsett says.
Pitcairn goes through the familiar tussle with the Bach, with Lipsett stopping her frequently, clapping his hands peremptorily to criticize her phrasing or her technique. She’s too tense. She needs to shape a phrase better. She needs more bow.
“Come on, fill the room,” he says at one point, rushing the stage to stand beside her. “Fortissimo.”
As fiery as Choi was, Pitcairn is lofty, even in shorts, barefoot, with a strand of blond hair falling across her forehead. She listens calmly to Lipsett’s suggestions and modifies her attack. She needs some more work on the Bach.
Then she plays a Paganini Caprice, an airy piece, like leaves falling in long, serpentine trajectories. Pitcairn performs it faultlessly, without interruption from Lipsett. She plays another, equally complicated piece.
Lipsett sits in his chair, seemingly stunned. “Bravo,” he says quietly. He stands up and moves slowly toward the stage. “This is CD-ready, by far the best I’ve ever heard it.”
He is clearly moved. “We’ve taken all this time,” he says slowly, “all of these years to bring us to this. These are flawless.”
It has been one of those breakthrough moments when the music grabbed him and took him somewhere – one of the moments Robert Lipsett lives for.

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